GMOs - Throwing precaution to the wind

Marching against Monsanto, Denver, CO, 13th October 2013. Photo: Confrontational Media via
Marching against Monsanto, Denver, CO, 13th October 2013. Photo: Confrontational Media via
As the UK Prime Minister welcomes the recommendations of his science advisors to 'go it alone' in Europe and embrace GMO crops, Pat Thomas wonders - whatever happened to the Precautionary Principle?
The US farm lobby is apoplectic at the EU's steadfast refusal to allow beef treated with hormones and GMOs into the European market.

If you want to know where someone stands on health and environment there can be few better barometers than their views on the Precautionary Principle (PP).

The PP, which is part of the regulatory framework in the EU, but not in the US or elsewhere, is based on the idea of 'forecaring'. It does not call for an abandonment of science, as so many detractors misleadingly suggest.

Instead it acknowledges that science, because of its limitations and uncertainties, is simply not able to provide an accurate prediction of future hazards. It suggests that we:

  • take action even in the face of uncertainty
  • place the burden of proof of relative safety or harm on the proponents of an activity rather than on the potential victims
  • explore alternatives to possibly harmful actions
  • use democratic processes, including decision-making that involves the views of those who are most affected.

Precaution or 'harmonisation'?

The PP has come back into the fore recently. Firstly, its application to the issue of GM crops is being scrutinised by a cross party Parliamentary inquiry which is considering whether it gets in the way of UK scientific competitiveness.   

But it is also being debated as the US and EU hash out a sweeping trade agreement known the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Protocol (TTIP). If you don't know about the TTIP, you should.

Under the guise of everyone working together - 'harmonisation' is what this is called in political and regulatory parlance - it promises to create massive profits and more jobs through trade liberalisation. All that we have to lose are some of the most basic approaches to safety.

Last October a barely-noticed Environment Committee report for Parliament found four areas which could be negatively impacted by the regulatory harmonisation required by TTIP:

GMOs: "Whereas the EU employs the precautionary principle and a thorough risk assessment process in determining which GMOs are allowed on the market, regulators in the US assume that GMOs are 'substantially equivalent' to their non-GMO counterparts and allow them on the market without a distinct regulatory regime."

Toxic chemicals: "While the EU's REACH framework requires all chemicals on the European market to be registered with the European Chemicals Agency, including the submission of safety data, US legislation only requires the submission of safety data in very specific circumstances and allows chemicals that were on the market prior to 1976 to remain on the market without any testing or registration requirement whatsoever."

The US farm lobby is apoplectic at the EU's steadfast refusal to allow beef treated with hormones and GMOs into the European market.

Poultry pathogens: "While both parties possess comprehensive regulations overseeing the production and processing of poultry, since 1997 the EU has held that only water may be used to wash poultry carcasses for sale on the European market, whereas the US allows its processers to use a number of different PRTs - including chlorine dioxide."

Aviation emissions: The EU "requires international air travel originating or terminating in the EU to comply with the EU's emissions trading system (ETS) requirements. The US has no equivalent programme to regulate aviation emissions, even though this sector is among the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gasses."

TTIPing the balance of power

Reconciling the philosophical and regulatory differences has proven near impossible and what is more, under the TTIP, as recently reported, "Multinationals will have wide-ranging powers to sue EU states that enact health or environmental laws breaching their 'legitimate expectations' of profit."

It may look like we're holding out against a Goliath, but within the EU moves are afoot to rob us of our sensible approach to precaution.

And as the 2013 report from the European Environment Agency, Late Lessons from Early Warnings, Volume 2, suggests, ignoring or downplaying early signs of risk, often under pressure from vested interests, has serious implications for society and the environment.

According to the Financial Times the US farm lobby is apoplectic at the EU's steadfast refusal to allow beef treated with hormones and GMOs into the European market.

Some interested parties are blustering that it is it was "preposterous" to question the safety of US food. Perhaps they haven't read this recent report detailing endless food recalls and contamination in a country where consumer faith in food is at an all time low.

Where do citizens belong in all this?

And while food remains a sticking point, in other areas this process has already begun. Europe's headlong push into fracking, despite abundant evidence from the US of the health and environmental harm it does - is a blatant disregard for the Precautionary Principle.

And it serves as proof that Europe's politicians and regulators are failing to put the interests of their citizens at the core of their policy-making.

When Anne Glover the EU's chief scientist says "the precautionary principle is no longer applicable", she isn't speaking as a scientist. She is speaking as a mouthpiece for Corporate Europe.

Likewise MEP Julie Girling and her broadsides against tighter controls on endocrine disrupters, chemicals found in plastics and herbicides that are linked to cancers and hormonal problems, as well as bee killing neonicotinoid pesticides. Indeed Girling has gone on record saying that the PP is "a risk to innovation".

The 'innovation principle'

That statement is key because 'innovation' has, in the mixed up world of political rhetoric, become the unquestioned antonym for 'precaution'.

In fact, in late 2013, and in a crude and unashamedly self-interested move, the CEOs of Bayer, Dow Chemical, Novartis and Syngenta sent a letter to the Presidents of the European Commission, Parliament and Council asking them to stop applying the precautionary principle to risk assessments, and instead apply the "Innovation Principle" to stimulate economic recovery in Europe.

Perhaps they, along with Glover and Girling, should read the aforementioned Late Lessons from Early Warnings.

After analysing 88 cases of so-called "false alarms", the authors concluded that only four were legitimately so - and that the precautionary approach actually stimulates rather than stifles innovation.

According to a recently leaked internal document written in preparation for the EU-US Summit on 26 March, civil society interest in trifling details like transparency, and potential risks for environmental and social standards, are seen as a threat to the almighty TTIP.

Long may civil society continue to be so disruptive.



Pat Thomas is an author and campaigner and former Editor of the Ecologist.

A shorter version of this article first appeared at NYR Natural News.



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